Snakes and Ladders: the clues and crimson fish hiding in first names

These days most parents seem to spend weeks reading baby name books, discussing naming options and trying out short-listed forenames on friends and family. Many even debate as far as the particular spelling of the name, the possibility of initials being a acronym for something less than pleasant, and whether the name works in all life situations (can the name be shortened for everyday use but still used in full at the alter or on a job application?!). 

Has it always been this way? Well, as with many things in genealogy, yes and no! This blog entry touches on ten different things to look out for (or keep in mind) when considering first names… but be careful! Just because you think you’ve come across a clue, it doesn’t mean you have. Your clue could just as easily be a snake as a ladder!

1. Family names

As today, many first names were simply ‘family’ names which were used down the years to honour previous generations. I’m sure I’m not the only one to find a run of direct ancestors with the same name: John Miller (1806), John Miller (1853), John Miller (1876), John Miller (1907). While this sort of repetition may lead you to see a pattern, beware of cousins born in the same areas and don’t assume the next generation up continues the sequence – in this case, the first John Miller’s father was Frank!

Other families named children after their deceased siblings. I have a family with four Thomas’ before one survived beyond infancy. In another example a recent article in Suffolk Roots came from a lady that thought she may have a family with up to six daughters named Sarah. Don’t fall into the trap however of thinking that a family would keep naming children the same thing until one survived – at any point they may have decided that they would like to use another name. 

2. Naming patterns 

Continuing the family name theme, you might know that in your family the first three sons were named after paternal grandfather, maternal grandfather and then father. Being aware parts of your tree may have conformed to a naming pattern could point you to a further child as yet undiscovered, but there are things to keep in mind. 

If both grandfathers had the same name, some parents may not have repeated it across two sons – others may have done. Naming patterns could restart after a second marriage or you could be looking for a child that doesn’t exist – maybe there was a family rift or the child’s mother put her foot down because she hated the name! 

3. Naming for more wealthy relatives or for social advancement 

Was you ancestor born into a family with a rich, but childless, uncle? Perhaps I will never know whether one of my forebears left his fortune to a namesake by design or through coincidence, but it is certainly possible that families thought along these lines. Perhaps you may discover a Plato or a Cornelius among Johns, Williams and Freds – I discovered both in a hut by a railway line in Bristol. Might their parents have thought that an unusual name would help them stand out from the crowd, or could their names even point you to extended family or a learned parent fallen on hard times? 


Naming for these reasons is not limited to parents naming children. Later in life family members may change their names for inheritance purposes or to cover up past escapades. This could be done formally through deed poll or just by becoming known by another moniker. My ‘Betton’ line for instance contains an example of a gentleman changing his surname and arms to those of ‘Bright’ as the heir to his mother’s father’s estate. Later on, my Great Great Grandfather (pictured) changed his name (for a second time) by deed poll from ‘Hurst Outerbridge’ back to Richard Betton Bright after he separated from his second wife in 1916. The ‘Outerbridge’ was a clue to his mother’s maiden name, but the ‘Hurst’ is still a mystery. Incidentally, when we discovered his ‘other’ name the initials on his yacht suddenly made sense!

4. Siblings with similar names

In 1881, Harriet and Emma Harriet Coman appear as sisters on the census. On the arrival of Emma’s birth certificate however, Harriet was revealed as her mother. The link between their names was a clue to an illegitimate birth in this case. 

However, elsewhere on the branches of my tree, Elizabeth and Eliza Larter appear to be full sisters. Just because one name may appear to be a short of another, or otherwise similar, it doesn’t mean that there is anything more complicated than a sibling situation. Likewise, a surname as a middle name may be an indication of a child’s father, but could be there just be to reinforce a connection to another family line, typically a maternal one. 

5. Silent first names 

Families with the same first name for all the girls or all the boys are surprisingly common. Perhaps all a family’s daughters are named Mary but known by their middle names, a friend of mine being a living example. Similarly, fathers and sons with the same baptismal name may be known by their middle names – or a least by different shorts – in order to prevent confusion in day to day life.

The red herring here is that those known by their middle names may not have the same first name as other family members at all – my Great Granddad simply didn’t like his forename while an elderly aunt was always known by her middle name and had never known any different. 

6. Acceptable names

Many families stuck to familiar names which required little explanation. A quick scan of my family tree (just over 2000 people – not all proven yet!) reveals that I  have 100 Elizabeths (not including Elizas) and 128 Williams for example. Often the names were Biblical. Although my tree only reveals four Matthews and two Marks (and no Lukes at all!) it does contain 99 Johns.

Would your ancestors have come across scores of different names as we do today? Probably not. If they did, would they have felt confident going against the grain, or spelling an unusual name to the clergy? With common names it is important to remember that although they are less likely to be mistranscribed in full, they may have been recorded in shorthand – ‘Thos’ for Thomas, ‘Wm’ for William etc. 

Still, not everyone stuck to the classics and a family with ten ‘ordinarily’ named offspring might still surprise you with the 11th child (my case in point: Sarah, Lucy, Rebecca, George, James, Mary… Providence!). In my tree it tends to be younger siblings that are given more inventive names – perhaps after the ‘family’ ones are used up. Of course, with unusual names you may need to be prepared for more mistranscription (Letitia appears as Lettie, Letzia, Lettitia, Lettice etc) which can sometimes level out the usefulness of a unique forename! 

7. Numbering

Alfred Septimus, a previous occupant of my blog must have been the seventh child, yes? No.  He appears to have been at least the ninth, but possibly the seventh son in a row. Certainly a ‘number name’ could be a clue (a la Stardust) but is that really for the reason you initially thought? 

As you can see, while a Hepzibah or an Octamus may seem to indicate birth order, it may not be so simple. Could the child have been born on the eighth day? The eighth month? The eighth full moon after harvest?! 

8. Names with historical significance 

Like everything else, names go in and out of fashion. Emigration abroad or migration to cities led people to mix with new people and cultures and naming patterns sometimes changed as these affected peoples’ lives. A growing media and smaller world introduced people to more and more outside influences. 

Some first names can be very helpful in providing an approximate birth date for an individual if you are unsure. I once researched a family with sons Foch, Petain and Joffre – all Marshals of France during WWI, effectively ‘dating’ them to around 1914-18. 

Another example with less specific dates is the girl’s name ‘Adelaide’ which became popular with Adelaide, wife of William IV (born 1792, crowned Queen Consort 1831 and died 1849) and then fell in popularity – but importantly for red herring purposes didn’t disappear completely – after the turn of the century.   

9. Latin 

If you are new to family history, don’t be put off by Latin in older parish registers. Little William was unlikely to have been known as Gulielmus in real life! The Johannes and Katharina in the registers matching your dates for John and Catherine are most likely the same children (but don’t assume – remember previous points about reusing names). 

Many names you will come across may be almost self-explanatory – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the officiating minister just added ‘us’ or ‘a’ to the English version in several cases. There are plenty of books and web pages giving you an introduction to written Latin versions of common first names. A good starting point is which will help you with the more unusual occurrences. 

10. Second hand information and the unknown 

While certificates are certainly always worth getting and often add vital written evidence to your tree, it would be wrong to suggest that they solve every query and that birth, marriage and death certificates always follow through. 

There are various reasons for this – perhaps an illegitimate child took on it’s father’s name between birth and marriage, perhaps parents registered a middle name but the subject never knew it or thought it was something else, or perhaps the registrar simply made a mistake. Only last week I was told that an official recorded a death as ‘Margaret’ as she thought the individual couldn’t possibly have been born ‘Maggie’, which actually was the name on her birth certificate. 

Birth certificates may not name a father (but still contain clues to parentage), marriage certificates may include a grandfather in place of a father (which nevertheless may help you back a generation) and death certificates may record names reported by next of kin which don’t match the birth paperwork (which could still explain why grandchildren had a certain name!).


So there we have it. First names can provide tantalising clues for furthering research, but as with everything, they can lead to dangerous assumptions which can cause an awful lot of problems and confusion down the line. 

Still, without the detective work and the red herrings, genealogy wouldn’t be half as interesting and satisfying as it is. The moral of the story is: appreciate first names and what they can tell you, but don’t read too much into them!

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